October 31, 2016
By Lisa Linardatos, PhD, Psychologist
When we are going through hardship, we may find ourselves feeling lonelier than ever. For many different reasons, it may be hard to connect with others when we are suffering. We may simply not have the energy or motivation, or we don’t want to be a burden to others and we believe we won’t be understood. We’re not sure how to open up and being vulnerable in this way feels uncomfortable. Plus, as a society, we tend to value individualism and work, often to the detriment of community and close relationships, so we may not have strong social connections in the first place. On top of all this, through social media it appears that everyone else’s life is going fantastically. For whatever reason, we are often alone in our suffering, yet this is the time when we need others’ support the most.
Loneliness is associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety (2, 11). It has also been linked to poor sleep quality (11), and increased risk of heart disease and stroke (10), and diminished immune system functioning (3). Moreover, social isolation has been shown to increase one’s risk for an early death, more so than obesity (6). Sadly, people who are lonely are more likely to fall prey to a self-fulfilling prophecy – they tend to see the world as more negative and threatening, and so distance themselves from people, and therefore become more isolated (5).
Ironically, in the moments when we feel so alone in our suffering, there are countless numbers of people feeling exactly the same way. As Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, points out in her book, The Upside of Stress, few people, if any, get through life without experiencing the rough stuff – loss, heartbreak, physical illness, betrayal, deep sadness, and anger, to name a few. One important way to relieve ourselves of some loneliness is to recognize and embrace our common humanity; that is, the idea that we’re not alone in our suffering and suffering is, in fact, part of being human.
Below I discuss how to decrease loneliness in suffering and embrace our common humanity.
Self-compassion is the act of being kind and understanding with ourselves, like we would a friend or a loved one, vs. being overly harsh and judgmental. Being self-compassionate entails mindfully observing our thoughts and feelings without judgment, seeing them for what they are – experiences that aren’t necessarily rooted in truth, that we don’t necessarily have to act on – and in this way we don’t ignore them, but we also don’t’ exaggerate them (8). Self-compassion is not an easy concept for most of us to grasp right away, as most of us are not used to thinking this way. For a better understanding of self-compassion, please check out my colleague Andrea’s touching blog post, “Why Self-Compassion”, in which she explains self-compassion, and provides some great tips and helpful resources.
Why is self-compassion important for reducing feelings of loneliness and recognizing our common humanity? As Tara Brach (author of Radical Acceptance) writes:
“Feeling unworthy goes hand in hand with feeling separate from others, separate from life. If we are defective, how can we possibly belong? It seems like a vicious cycle: the more deficient we feel, the more separate and vulnerable we feel. “ (p. 6)
In other words, a necessary part of self-compassion is recognizing that feeling unworthy is a normal part of the human experience. If we understand and embrace the idea that we are all in this together – we all make mistakes, we all have regrets, we are all fallible, we all feel disappointed and inadequate at times – we will feel more compassion toward ourselves and less alone in our suffering. By recognizing our shared humanity, these moments of perceived failure can be transformed from moments of isolation to moments of togetherness.
So how can we increase self-compassion, and therefore feel less alone in our suffering? A great place to start working on self-compassion is to simply notice that sneaky, self-critical voice that pops into our heads more often than we’re aware, and practice talking to ourselves like we would a friend. For example, next time we forgot where we placed our keys, or failed to meet our studying or exercise goals, instead of saying to ourselves, “You’re such an idiot!”, try being nice and helpful: “That’s too bad. I wonder what can be done differently next time?”
Self-compassion meditations are also a great way to practice self-compassion, as they help us foster the emotional experience of self-compassion. You can give one a try here. For more on self-compassion, Kristen Neff, a psychology professor and researcher, and leading expert in self-compassion, has a ton of resources on her website.
2. “Make the invisible visible”
In her book, The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal talks about the importance of “making the invisible visible”. She points out that “people often underestimate the stress in other people’s lives and overestimate other people’s happiness”, and because we are often not aware of other people’s suffering, we conclude that we are the only ones experiencing hardship. Below I describe two aspects of making the invisible visible.
a) Practice authenticity.
Authenticity is when we express and act in line with our true feelings, thoughts, and values. Most would agree that authenticity is a great value to uphold, but being authentic is not always easy. First, it can be difficult to identify our “true” thoughts and values. Second, we’re often afraid of being authentic because being authentic might lead to judgment from others, it might cause a fight with a loved one, it might make us feel like we’re disappointing someone important to us, etc. So being authentic can be scary, and it makes us feel vulnerable, and naturally we avoid feeling afraid and being vulnerable. Yet, we know that authenticity and vulnerability are key ingredients to strong connections and fulfilling relationships (9). Without these ingredients, we may not feel understood by and emotionally attached to our close others.
As Kristin Neff described in her book, Self-Compassion:
“We may….be ashamed to admit our feelings of inadequacy to those we love, for fear they wouldn’t love us anymore if they knew the way we really were. Hiding our true selves from others then makes us feel even more alone.” (p. 65)
Being authentic is hard, but it’s clear that it will help us feel less alone and recognize our common humanity. Here are some tips for practicing authenticity:
b) Find a supportive community, or create the supportive community you want.
In our culture, which tends to emphasize individualism, it can be difficult to open up to others and ask for help, yet we know social support offers many benefits. Support groups in particular are therapeutic for many reasons. They give us the opportunity to help others, which is a way to cultivate purpose and meaning, and by connecting with others, we feel more supported and less alone. Moreover, by hearing others’ stories of their suffering, we are less likely to feel like we’re the only ones, and are more likely to recognize that suffering is, in fact, part of the human condition.
You may be surprised by what type of community activities and support groups are available online and in your city. My colleague Miriam wrote a blog post with a ton of great tips and resources on how to increase your social network, How To Make Friends When You Don’t Have Play Dates: The Importance Of Friendships In Adulthood. A few of my local favourites include this networking app, Women in Mind, started by a mom who felt isolated after the birth of her second child. And this organization, Hommes en action, whose purpose is to help retired men counter loneliness through group projects. Finally, organizations like AMI Quebec offer a ton of support groups for those suffering from mental health issues.
I recognize that going through hardships is just that, hard. When we’re already feeling low, it can be very difficult to cultivate self-compassion, ask for help, strengthen friendships, and build community. Perhaps then it’s best for us not to wait, and start today, in small ways, reaching out, being vulnerable, and connecting over one of the few things we all have in common. As Michael Stipe famously said, “everybody hurts.”